Muslim views part of debate over executions

Death penalty permitted for murder, adultery

January 31, 2001|By Steven G. Vegh | Steven G. Vegh,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NORFOLK, Va. - Virginia death-row inmates who praised Jesus before being executed no doubt knew that many Christians on the outside condemn capital punishment.

When Christopher Goins was executed Dec. 6, however, among his last words were, "There is no God but Allah." Did he wonder if Muslims, too, were fighting the death penalty?

Goins, who was convicted of murdering three children and their parents, didn't talk much about his Islamic beliefs, said Frank Salvato, Goins' attorney.

But with an estimated 10 percent of Virginia's 30,000 prison inmates calling themselves Muslim, Islamic views are a growing part of the debate over executions.

People who oppose capital punishment on religious grounds have long led the anti-death-penalty movement in the United States.

Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States, and the country's estimated 6 million believers outnumber some Christian denominations, including the United Church of Christ and the Assemblies of God.

Capital punishment is permitted in Islam under guidelines found in the Koran, the holiest book of Islamic scripture, and hadith, authoritative doings and sayings of Muhammad and his companions.

In the case of a murderer, the victim's family can demand death, said Farhat J. Ziadeh, a scholar who has written on Islam and criminal law for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Modern Islam. Death is also sanctioned in adultery, he said.

Witnesses needed

But death is imposed less often than scriptures allow. In the case of adultery, execution is not warranted unless the crime was witnessed by as many as four people. As a result, "the measure of proof is so difficult that [the likelihood of a death sentence] is practically nullified," Ziadeh said.

In murder cases, at least two "trustworthy" male Muslim witnesses to the crime are needed for a sentence of death. "Especially when it comes to the death penalty, circumstantial evidence is not acceptable - there should be concrete witnesses," said Muhammad Sahli, a Muslim chemist and businessman in Richmond.

But even when murder is proved through eyewitnesses, death is not mandatory.

Any Muslim who has murdered is encouraged to ask forgiveness from the victim's family, Sahli said. "If those people genuinely have the fear of God in their heart and I seek forgiveness, they should forgive me, because only God can be the judge of whether I have repented."

Sahli is a board member of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which opposes the death penalty. But as a Muslim, he must "stick to the rule of the Koran," which allows the death penalty for some crimes, he explained.

Balancing law and justice

What keeps those seemingly contradictory affiliations compatible for Sahli is his assertion that justice, as prescribed by Islamic standards, is sometimes waived by the American standard of law and punishment.

"We have had cases here where the [victim's] family say they prefer that the person who did the crime not be executed, and he was executed," Sahli said. "Those cases are not sanctioned by Islam. The teaching of Islam would say he should not be executed."

Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based organization that opposes and publicizes discrimination against Muslims, said his group also does not oppose capital punishment in principle.

But racial profiling and the disproportionate number of African- Americans in prison, Hooper said, point to discrimination and faulty prosecution in the U.S. justice system. Those flaws clash with the environment that is envisioned by Islam in its sanction of the death penalty.

In Hampton Roads, Ali Salaam visits prison inmates to share Islamic teachings. He founded the United Community of Al-Islam in Chesapeake and belongs to the Muslim American Society, which follows the Sunni tradition of Islam.

Salaam said capital punishment is appropriate for individuals who repeatedly commit crimes such as murder that they know are wrong and contrary to God's will.

An obligation

"If they're going to come out [of prison] and keep doing the same thing, why give these people that chance?" he asked. As Muslims, "once we know what's right and wrong, according to the guidance of God, we have an obligation to follow the laws, and once we break the law, we have to pay the consequences."

But Salaam said American society does too little to educate people, particularly young people, about right and wrong. For example, the promotion of gambling and alcohol encourages irresponsible behavior that can end in punishing encounters with the American justice system.

That system sometimes allows abuse of people's legal rights, Salaam said. "We know there are innocent people who sometimes are convicted." As a result, "we don't look at the death penalty as unlawful, but we do look at it, in this society, as unjust," he said.

Albert Muhammad shares that belief. Muhammad also visits inmates in eastern Virginia, but is a minister in the Nation of Islam, which is led by Louis Farrakhan.

The United States, Muhammad said, "is a country that's separated church and state and doesn't recognize the laws of God."

The result is an American justice system that is biased against blacks and that sentences them to death more frequently than white defendants, Muhammad said. That's why the Nation of Islam opposes death sentences within the United States. The death penalty also implicitly rejects Muslims' belief that human beings can reform and adopt a God-fearing life. "We don't believe anyone convicted of crime is beyond redemption," Muhammad said.

Islam would extend that hope to Goins. "He said, `There is no God but Allah,'" Salaam said, recalling Goins' last words. "As Muslims, we're told that, before death, if a person says that, he'll get to paradise regardless of what he's done. I think he was at peace with God."

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